If the season ended right now, the Toronto Maple Leafs would make the playoffs. They would be eighth seed in the East Conference with a record of 21-19 with three regulation tie points. Given the recent failures of the Toronto organization, that would be a successful year. The logical thing to do when you are having a successful year is to fire your coach... right?
Toronto media had been clamoring for Carlyle's firing. This happens from time to time in the more hockey crazy markets. The media can turn on the coach regardless of whether or not it is warranted. It wasn`t warranted in Toronto. A good GM would be intelligent enough to ignore the media and do the right thing.
The medal round in the World Junior Hockey Championships was played in the last two days. The tournament was played in Montreal and Toronto. Here are the quarterfinal results. The medal round began with semifinals. Sweden met Russia and Canada met Slovakia.
Here are their results:
Russia 4 Sweden 1 - This game was a re-match of their round robin game which Sweden won 3-2. In this game Russia took a lead with two second period goals. Sweden scored midway through the third period but it wasn't enough to get back into the game. Alexander Sharov (undrafted) scored two of the Russian goals. Maxim Mamin (undrafted) had a goal and an assist and Vladimir Bryukvin (undrafted) had two assists. The Swedish goal was scored by Lucas Wallmark (Carolina prospect). Russian goalie Igor Shestyorkin (New York Rangers prospect) was the winning goalie stopping 26 of 27 shots. Linus Soderstrom (New York Islanders prospect) lost with 27 saves on 31 shots. Russia moves to the gold/silver game and Sweden to the bronze/4th game.
In mid-December I picked Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators as the MVP. He was my first non-Sidney Crosby selection for MVP since February of 2013. Since I picked Rinne, his saves percentage has dropped eight points from .937 to .929 and his goals against average has risen by 25 points from 1.75 to 2.00. While I argue he remains the top goalie in the league (in close competition with Carey Price), he is no longer the Hart Trophy leader.
In fact I would argue that there is no player worthy of the Hart Trophy at this point. Rinne and Price have been good goalies but neither is at the level of recent MVP goalies. On defence, Mark Giordano of the Calgary Flames has been the league leader. I don't think he plays strong enough defensively to be considered an MVP - at least not as long as he remains below point per game scoring level. At forward, there are several players who are at or near the NHL scoring lead. Those who play the most dominant overall games tend not to be the highest scorers right now.
The World Junior Hockey Championships are underway. They are being played in Toronto and Montreal. Today the single elimination quarterfinals were played between the top four finishers in the two round robin pools which completed on December 31st.
Here are the results:
Russia 3 USA 2 - The Russians took an early lead on a goal by Ivan Barbashev (St Louis Blues prospect) and Alexander Sharov (undrafted) added another goal later in the first period. Anthony DeAngelo (Tampa Bay Lightning prospect) cut the lead in half in the second period. Sergei Tolchinsky (Carolina Hurricane prospect) opened up a two goal lead. The Americans pressed hard for the third period and pulled to within one goal when Zach Werenski (2015 draft eligible) scored. Igor Shesterkin (New York Rangers prospect) was the winning goaltender with 39 saves on 41 shots. Thatcher Demko (Vancouver Canucks prospect) was the losing goalie facing 25 shots. Russia moves on to the medal round.
Travis Yost of TSN writes about how the Florida Panthers have surprisingly become a playoff calibre team. He is supposed to be an "analytics" writer with TSN, but he misses the simple reasons that the Panthers have improved. Since last year the Panthers have added a number one goalie and a number one defenceman and they have lost nobody of significance in the process.
Roberto Luongo was acquired from the Vancouver Canucks at the trade deadline last year. It cost Shawn Matthias and Jacob Markstrom. Markstrom has spent this season in the AHL and Matthias is a 12 point scoring depth player. Luongo is a very good goalie. He was a popular choice at the beginning of the season for the most improved player because he was out Vancouver where he had been surrounded by negativity. If he produced numbers similar to those in Vancouver it would be seen as an improvement. Luongo is a top level NHL goaltender and he would go a long way toward improving Florida.
The Edmonton Oilers are stuck in last place. They have three fewer points than any other team and three fewer wins than any other team. They have had several years of top draft picks and don't have much of anything to show for it. One problem is they are not able to develop these top prospects. As the World Junior Hockey Championships are underway we see that this is one place players can be developed and the Oilers do not use it. They rush their top prospects directly into the NHL and attempt to develop them there. A team where prospects are developed into NHL players is not an NHL team. It is an AHL team. The Edmonton Oilers have looked more like an AHL team than an NHL one.
The most recent Oiler first round draft pick is Leon Draisaitl. He has struggled in the NHL but nevertheless that is where he is. He has two goals and seven points to go with a -18 +/ rating in 35 games played. He should be playing in the World Junior Championships. He should have been returned to junior. He isn't developing in the NHL. There are no great examples of developed players in Edmonton. Even the players who have shown some success like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle are struggling this season. All are scoring at well below point per game level. Nobody is taking a step forward this year.
Anyone looking at the goaltending leaders this season cannot help but notice rookie goaltender Michael Hutchinson of the Winnipeg Jets. He leads the NHL in saves percentage with .939 and goals against average with 1.77. This is impressive given the lack of superstar players on the Winnipeg Jets defence. Whenever a player has such a start to his NHL career, it is reasonable to wonder if it might continue.
We have a limited sample size of NHL games from Hutchinson. He has appeared in 14 NHL games with 12 complete games played this season. He appeared in three other games last year and posted slightly better numbers than his current league leading ones. Thus his career NHL totals are a .940 saves percentage and a 1.74 GAA. The caveat is this is in about 15 and a half complete NHL games. That isn't a large enough sample size to prove much.
The New Jersey Devils handed Peter DeBoer a bad Boxing Day present yesterday. They fired him. He had spent three and a half years as the Devils coach. In his first season he led a surprising Devils team to the Stanley Cup finals. The Devils have not made the playoffs since and do not look to do so this season. They currently have a 12-24 record with seven regulation tie points. This has the Devils third from last in the East Conference. While DeBoer may not be the best coach in the NHL, it is hard to blame him for the Devils problems. They have the oldest team in the NHL. It is expected that a team like that should be in decline.
Replacing him as coach will be two people. Adam Oates and Scott Stevens are the team's co-coaches. Oates will coach the offence and Stevens the defence. That novel situation doesn't look like a longterm plan. It is easiest to imagine that this is a temporary arrangement until a more permanent coach is brought in. A team without a clear head coach is a problem. If nobody is calling the shots, there is no accountability and nobody to set a clear direction.
I don't see New Jersey as an improved team without a head coach. New Jersey is a team with a few problems and their lack of a head coach is another one. I hope that there is a permanent proven coach about to be hired.
I haven't looked at the AHL standings for over six weeks. When I last looked, the Rockford IceHogs (Chicago Blackhawks affiliate) and Utica Comets (Vancouver Canucks affiliate) were fighting for the top position in the league. Utica remains atop the standings with a 19-10 record with five regulation time points. This gives them 43 on the season. Rockford has slipped back a few points in the standings. The top contenders to supplant Utica in first place are the Manchester Monarchs (Los Angeles Kings affiliate). They have a 20-8 record with two regulation tie points. That gives them 42 points. They have a game in hand when compared to Utica and an extra win.
Utica has the fewest goals against in the AHL. Jacob Markstrom and Joacim Eriksson have provided top goaltending. Manchester leads the AHL in goals scored. They have the two top scorers in the league in Brian O'Neill and Nick Shore. Jordan Weal is sixth in scoring in the league.
The battle between Utica and Manchester for first place is a classic battle. The best defence against the best offence. It should be interesting to see how this battle resolves itself.
I think it is an interesting development this season that the Toronto Maple Leafs lead the NHL in scoring. They have 3.29 goals per game or 112 goals scored (with two more "goals" from winning shootouts). This is quite an improvement from last season when they were 14th overall in the league. The Leafs have improved by over half a goal per game since last year. How has this happened?
Phil Kessel is their top offensive player. He scored 37 goals last year and has 17 so far this year. He has been a good player for the last few years but does not show any signs of improvement. James Van Riemsdyk and Tyler Bozek are also top scorers in both of the last couple seasons. They seem to be replicating past success and not making a big step forward. The difference between last year and this one is largely depth. Players like Mike Santorelli, David Clarkson and Peter Holland are scoring in Toronto and were not last year either because they were not Leafs or because they were not healthy. Last season there were six Maple Leafs who exceeded the 10 goal mark. This year ten or eleven Leafs are on pace to exceed that mark. They have better depth this season. This is a success of Toronto management. Dave Nonis and his crew deserve credit.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
Why am I blogging? I want to.
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